BETHALTO — A last minute change of venue for the District 22 title tilt couldn't slow the red-hot Metro East Bears.
Originally scheduled to be played at Gordon Moore Park in Alton, the District 22 finale was switched to the Bethalto Sports Complex on Friday with the Bears charging past the Belleville Hilgards 7-2. With the win, Metro East improved to 21-6 and will move on to represent District 22 in the Fifth Division Tournament in Carmi. Belleville closes its season at 26-9.
While the change of venue could have shook up the Bears, they put the right guy in position to handle it. Starting pitcher Zac Cato is a recent graduate of Civic Memorial and he was stoked to get the call at his old stomping grounds.
“I was excited about this game,” Cato said. “I was ready for it. I like playing on this field.
“I was just trying to throw strikes. I know they put it in play and my team can make the plays behind me.”
There's no shortage in confidence for the Bears lately. Tournament MVP Drake Hampton said he and his teammates are relishing in the present.
“I just think we're taking it game by game,” Hampton said. “We're not really thinking about the future right now. We're just playing really well as a team. We're all pretty close and pretty good friends.”
That team chemistry was put to the test when Belleville snatched the lead in the fourth inning Friday. Cal Kossina and Matt Klosterman led off the fourth with consecutive singles off of Cato and a one-out base knock off the bat of Spencer Piquard plated Kossina to make it 1-0. After a walk to Austin Keen loaded the bags with Hilgards, Johnny Dozier hit a grounder to first for an inning-ending double play. But with first baseman Maverick McSparin stepping on the bag and firing to second for Keen to be tagged out, Klosterman was able to scamper across the plate before the tag, upping it to 2-0.
Metro East didn't waste any time answering though. In the bottom of the fourth Jordan Hovey was plunked by a Wyatt Parker pitch to start the inning. Hovey then stole second and was joined on the base paths by Matthew Zielonko on a one-out walk. A balk allowed them both to move up a base and McSparin made it hurt.
The Bears' first baseman smacked a ball into center field, but Belleville's Sam Haudrich took his first step backward and then slipped trying to come in on the short fly. Both Hovey and Zielonko scored and like that it was even at 2-2.
“A two-strike, two-out hit and that's what we try and preach to make contact with two strikes,” Metro East manager Ken Schaake said. “He gets the ball into center field, we score two runs and that was a momentum changer. After that we were in a new ball game.”
McSparin was happy to contribute with the two-run single. It was a catalyst for the Bears to get going, although McSparin didn't take too much credit.
“I don't know if you'd call it a big hit, the outfielder made a little bit of an error and it got down so it counts as a hit in the book and I count it as a hit too,” McSparin said. “Honestly we just needed that momentum since they'd gotten two in the top of the inning. We just needed to get back in the game and be consistent.”
Metro East tacked on two more runs in the fifth to grab a 4-2 advantage. Anthony Kindle coaxed a walk out of the No. 9 hole and after a single by Hampton and a deep fly out by Hovey, Aaron Jackson singled home Kindle. Hampton then scored on a passed ball.
Connor Melton picked up a RBI in the sixth, scoring Caleb Buhs to make it 5-2 in favor of the Bears and two more runs came in the seventh to put it out of reach. Hovey singled, stole second and scored easily on Jackson's triple. A throwing allowed Jackson to score too and up it to 7-2.
Kory Loew and Hampton came on in relief of Cato and kept the Hilgards off balance at the plate. Belleville manager Zach Rakowski thought that was exactly what Metro East did, keep his hitters off balance.
“They did a really good job of changing the looks and when you don't have a lot of guys to extend it out, that's about as good as anything else you can do,” Rakowski said.
Schaake is just happy to win another District 22 title and move onto the Fifth Division. It never gets old for the longtime manager.
“No they don't get old,” Schaake said with a laugh.
And even though the Bears are guaranteed a spot in the Great Lakes Regional by being a host this year, they want to keep playing and remaining sharp in the Fifth Division and hopefully state.
“Especially this game today, this was a huge momentum swing,” Hampton said. “This was a huge game because we were the only undefeated team and we had to be beaten twice. This was a huge momentum game.”
Metro East is now idle until 11:30 a.m. Tuesday in Carmi. The tournament begins on Monday, but the Bears have a first round bye.
DISTRICT 22 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
METRO EAST 7, BELLEVILLE 2
BELLEVILLE 000 200 000 — 2 7 3
METRO EAST 000 221 20X — 7 8 0
BEARS (21-6) — Drake Hampton 1-5, Jordan Hovey 2-3 2B HBP 3 SBs, Aaron Jackson 2-4 3B SB RBI, Matthew Zielonko 0-3 BB, Maverick McSparin 2-4 2B 2 RBIs, Connor Melton 1-4 RBI, Anthony Kindle 0-3 BB.
WP — Zac Cato 5.1IP 6H 2R 2ER 1BB 2K
Kory Loew 1.2IP 0H 0R 0ER 1BB 1K
Hampton 2.0IP 1H 0R 0ER 1BB 3K 1HBP
HILGARDS (26-9) — Sam Haudrich 1-5, Cal Kossina 1-4, Matt Klosterman 1-4, Luke Frazier 1-4 2B, Spencer Piquard 2-4 SB RBI, Austin Keen 0-2 BB HBP, Luke Glaeser 1-4, Casey Arnold 0-1 SAC 2 BBs.
LP — Wyatt Parker 5.0IP 4H 4R 4ER 2BB 4K
Josh Davinroy 3.0IP 4H 3R 2ER 0BB 4K